Traveling Light

"The great German filmmaker Werner Herzog, said in 1983: "I truly believe that the lack of adequate images is a danger…I have said that before and I repeat it again and again, and as long as I can speak I will speak out for that. If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs." Whether the images that you go on to make after today will, as Herzog has it, be adequate to save us- or at least alert us to the NEED to be saved- depends on if we, your audience, engaged in our myriad of communities, can find in them some resonating evidence of how we live now. Good luck. And thank you."

- Tod Papageorge, 2004 Yale School of Art commencement talk

Jul 12

"For me, photography started in a very raw place. I didn’t take to it because I was interested in it. It was just that I was in a certain place in life where I was really low, and a camera was given to me, and it made me feel good to look at the photos. It was to do more with the feeling, like I was worth something. That’s what made me take to photography. I’m a very different photographer now, who ‘knows’ too much, and I’m not so lost anymore. Earlier on, I was lost but I was really happy. Right now, I don’t ‘love’ photography, it’s a love-hate thing going on. It’s frustration, and I can’t do anything else. It is the only thing I want to be with. I have been, in a very strange way, lucky, to have started from a place where it was more of a need than a want or interest. I needed to make me feel good, just by creating something. I’ve been lucky to have met really good people who confronted me with difficult questions, which I think is a very important part of the process. Sometimes you’re able to pose these questions to yourself, but sometimes someone else may ask you uncomfortable questions that challenge your beliefs. It may make you realize how you are being a hypocrite, which then leads to another question – do I continue in that direction, or do I let go of those principles, and not try to put up a façade or do something about it? For me, the more I get away from the system, the happier I am, and more free. These grants and awards which come our way, even though they can be helpful, sometimes you need to be categorized as a certain photographer to fit into the agenda of all these things. I’d rather see something that’s really raw, that makes you feel something or even better, something that makes you react, rather than something that just fits into an idea of being ‘contemporary’ or anything else just for the sake of it. I feel like we are in a state of flux, where there is a lot of confusion amongst photographers, and more than photographers actually, the gatekeepers of the photo world- Sohrab Hura In my few meetings with Sohrab, he has always posed me very tough questions about where I am in photography and what i am doing with it. He is like a prophet who comes into your life, hit you hard with his walking stick and words of wisdom and then disappears again. But his words always compel a change in me."

Jun 29

"We pause, we recognize; we try to work it out."

- Gregory Maguire, on Maurice Sendak’s works.

May 10

"Looking back, we don’t know if the wars of Homer’s epics actually happened. The role of the ancient storyteller wasn’t to relay facts but to impart greater truths: archetypes, emotions, political structures, and the nature of human experience."

- Stephen Mayes, former director of VII Photo, Aperture no. 214

Mar 31

There was a time when one could board a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Ipoh- a flight so short that one would have already landed just as the flight attendants finished serving orange juice to passengers. The Ipoh International Airport served mainly three routes- Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Medan- a sister city in Sumatera, Indonesia. The carrier of most of these flights also happened to be Malaysia Airlines and so, small town people like me at some point would begin our flying experience with the liner. I was 12, and my sister two years older; when my parents decided to ship us away for a month-long holiday with our aunt in Hong Kong in November 1995, then still a British colony. Without guardians traveling with us, Malaysia Airlines offered to have their female flight attendants clad in tight turquoise baju kebaya, coiffed hair and dazzling smiles as caretakers, who held our hands tightly from the departure gate into the aircraft. We were both given a tag to pin onto our Mickey Mouse t-shirts- “Young Passenger Traveling Alone” - in red and white, with a tiny, red ribbon on it. It came with many privileges. For instance, a walking tour of the airport via passageways restricted for airport staff use. As it would have been abominable to leave us out of the flight attendants’ sight, we were whisked into the office where dozens of pairs of eyes could watch over us as ground staff got busy with non-stop calls for last-minute bookings and flight reschedules. To keep us quiet and also perhaps from being destructive, we were given sodas. Then, we got to enter the boardng gate much earlier than anyone else. There, we watched them fiddle with DOS-powered computers, listened to airport sounds- the buzz of walkie-talkies, women’s black heels clicking against the floor along the corridor and discovered which button to press that would trigger the announcement alarm. Up in the plane, we got kids’ meal sets- mini chicken burgers and fries when everyone else ate fried noodles, and given colouring pencils and paper to scribble on during the four-hour flight. Never mind that we were already in pre-teen and teens and so, were beginning to be more interested in blue-eyed American boys. Forty five minutes before the plane started its descent towards Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong- an airport in the heart of town which required most planes to fly precariously above apartments and offices, barely hitting their roofs before landing, the chief flight attendant nudged us to get up and follow him to the first-class cabin. I remembered marveling at how much larger the seats were and that was all. He served us more orange juice and chatted with us. As a miniscule Hong Kong appeared below us, he said with a chuckle: “Can you smell it? The smell of money!” It was Malaysian hospitality- a tagline for the state-owned carrier in recent years- with Malaysian humour tossed in, I now know. Malaysia Airlines have stopped operating from Ipoh as I began to outgrow my teens because it was so much cheaper to travel by road. By then, my family has amassed a small collection of mementos of the airline. We stirred our hot cocoas with stainless steel teaspoons engraved with a little Malay kite at the end of their handles- the company logo. Until today, my mother brings along a purple blanket wherever we travel- discreetly taken from a Malaysia Airlines’ flight many years ago- and insists that it provides the most warmth. We also have black lacquer chopsticks in our kitchen drawer-courtesy of the liner, also discreetly taken, which I use to eat instant noodles with. We laughed at our friend’s grandmother who was caught with Malaysia Airlines’ stainless steel utensils in her handbag in an airport scan that hit the steel detector alarm- the image of a fork and spoon appeared on the computer. The airline didn’t seem to mind. After all, airlines were making tonnes of money because the tickets were so expensive. From the passengers’ perspective, flying was for the privileged and so, everyone that made it up 30,000 feet above sea level wanted a physical memory of their own flying experience to be shown to friends and families on land. These days, I was told life jackets have become the must-have memento, as liners all around the world struggling with rising fuel costs serve food in paper boxes alongside plastic forks and spoons. “Taking the life jacket from the seat is a serious offence,” flight attendants would announce at the end of the flight. In one of my recent Malaysia Airlines’ flight to Cambodia, over coffee in plastic cups, I chatted with a sixty-year-old woman from Perth, Australia who spoke with a thick accent and has silvery cropped hair. She was going to celebrate her birthday on her own in Siem Reap- a town booming with tourists to see the majestic Angkor Wat temple complex . “My husband and I loved traveling especially to Asia,” she said while her dangling earrings bobbed up and down with each head gesture. “He passed away four years ago, but I don’t want to stop living and traveling after he left.” Her voice trailed off and then, she reached out for a tissue, dabbed her eyes and then gave me the most radiant smile I have ever seen in months. A week later, I woke up to a text message saying a Malaysia Airline’s plane en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur codenamed MH370 had disappeared into the night with 239 passengers and crew onboard, throwing families of those in that plane and the nation in disarray and panic. Into the 20th day of search, the plane has yet to be found. The government has, on March 24, 2014, declared it to have crashed into a remote part of the Indian Ocean, suggesting no survivors. In all Malaysian Airlines’ flights heading back to Kuala Lumpur, passengers onboard would hear a heartwarming message which said “Kepada para penumpang Malaysia, kami ucapkan selamat pulang ke tanahair” , or “To all Malaysian passengers, welcome home” in Malay. But to Malaysians, the word “tanahair” is more than just home- it literally means soil and water- the ingredients that give us existence and birthright in a romantic and patriotic way in which there is no English equivalent. Until today, Malaysians are still holding onto strands of hope to say this to the passengers and crew of MH370. As anguish holds all of us ransom still, I remember this exceptional moment, which happened as I was about to get off the plane in Kuala Lumpur that cloudy Sunday on March 9 2014, a day after the plane vanished. Several passengers had approached the pilot and flight attendants that just lost 12 colleagues. They firmly shook their hands and said “Thank you.”

Mar 27
Fleeting memories

"I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

- E B White

Mar 26

On September 11, 2001, Magnum- the world’s most pretigious photo agency- had held its annual meeting which was attended by some photographers that were usually in far-flung countries for projects and assignments at that time of the year. Whether by coincidence or by design, the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York and the spectacular fall of the Twin Towers became among the most documented events in modern history due to the heavy presence of these reporters. The attack was visually gripping. In the absence of reason in the madness of terror, an immediate global connection was made because of the flood of images of debris, eyewitness accounts, survivors’ stories, heroes, villains that claimed responsibility to owning the story. Almost 13 years later, a jumbo jet from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing went missing about an hour after taking off and a week into the search, the Malaysian government called it a “deliberate act” of diversion of the plane’s route, suggesting hijacking or another act of terror. But this story is confined largely to press conferences, unverified military sources on what might have happened to the plane, footages of plainscloth policemen entering homes of the missing pilots and spectacles of the search and rescue teams scouring the waters around Malaysia and the Indian ocean with powerful binoculars. The story, if it may come forth as such, is being articulated best by this image- men up in the air looking for pin-sized objects floating on a wide sea of blue from afar, and found nothing credible enough to be the lead. If the 9/11 was the breathing apparatus for reportage, the missing MH370 is appearing to be choking it- where story after story are relayed in rooms, by men of power in suits and uniforms and where images too, are confined and limited to a seemingly clean environment but with little points to prove. Without a doubt, this is an important story but with only fragments of factual information given, it opens up large spaces for speculations to fill. Added with the lack of photographs and footages of wreckage, bodies, or terrorists claiming responsibility- even despite being in an age where these materials are also sources of mistrust and easily manipulated- the duty to storify the missing plane has become a vague and opaque exercise. It is like trying to find a pathway along the sea.

Mar 19
Pringles party with the kids. The family lives less than this can of Pringles of US$2 a day. it’s hard not to be involved with the children and not buy them these little luxuries when I have the chance.
Mar 9

Pringles party with the kids. The family lives less than this can of Pringles of US$2 a day. it’s hard not to be involved with the children and not buy them these little luxuries when I have the chance.

After herding the cows in the morning, Bu Thum and her youngest daughter Sophea stumbled upon a dead tree trunk. They climbed on it to gather firewood. The land they are on would have been a rice field but planting season only begins after June when the rain comes again. (Off Siem Reap, March 7 2014)
Mar 7

After herding the cows in the morning, Bu Thum and her youngest daughter Sophea stumbled upon a dead tree trunk. They climbed on it to gather firewood. The land they are on would have been a rice field but planting season only begins after June when the rain comes again. (Off Siem Reap, March 7 2014)